Thursday, April 23, 2009

Video may have killed March 14's star

Walid Jumblatt is rapidly becoming a star of the portable telephone screen. After being filmed tongue-lashing his Druze brethren last February 15 because they had closed the Bhamdoun road following the murder of one of theirs by Amal sympathizers, he appears, this time, to have leaked a scene of himself speaking to Druze sheikhs at the home of Sheikh Muhammad Jawad Wali al-Din. In the gathering, Jumblatt referred to the Maronites as a "bad type" and derided the incapacity of the Sunnis to defend themselves against Hizbullah last May.

Was the video deliberately released by Jumblatt? Almost certainly yes. It would be easy for him to find out who was responsible for sending the film to the media, and no one would have dared incur Jumblatt's wrath, while also embarrassing Sheikh Wali al-Din in his own home, by doing so in a clandestine way. Jumblatt's statements were offensive and may have lost his political allies valuable seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The terse statement that he read on Wednesday, while it made some valid points, will unfortunately do little to attenuate Maronite anger. However, the more significant question is why did Jumblatt feel he had to say what he did, knowing very well what the consequences would be? The filmed scene itself provides several clues explaining this.

The meeting with the sheikhs (like the filming of the scene itself, and its distribution) was an opportunity for Jumblatt to reinforce an idea that he has long been trying to persuade the Druze to accept: the need for them to pacify their relations with the Shiite community. As Jumblatt explained, the Druze cannot afford a confrontation with the Shiites, especially at a time when the United States is opening to Iran, and the United Kingdom to Hizbullah. The community has limited military means to sustain a prolonged battle, particularly in coastal areas toward which the Shiites are spreading, and no effective allies to help defend them. Sheikh Wali al-Din endorsed Jumblatt's position, giving him the sanction he sought.

In that context, it's difficult to condemn Jumblatt. The Druze leader has been willing to alter his position on virtually everything in the past 32 years, usually through mesmerizing acrobatics, but he has consistently stuck to two principles: defense of the Druze, and defense of Jumblatti domination over the Druze. The seemingly volatile Jumblatt is among the most predictable of politicians if you understand what motivates him.

Less understandable, perhaps, is why he felt a need to insult the Maronites and disparage the Sunnis, or at least their capacity to fight. The explanation seems little different than his rationale for reconciling with the Shiites: defense of the community and his leadership over it. This time, however, the compulsory reconciliation is with the Syrian regime. It might be time to recognize that Jumblatt is preparing for a realignment on Syria, one that serves two purposes: to ensure that the Druze will not be isolated in an anti-Syrian posture while the rest of Lebanon moves toward friendlier relations with Damascus, amid signs that the Hariri tribunal will not soon provide leverage over President Bashar Assad; and to guarantee that Jumblatt himself will not pay with his life the price of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, as his father did in 1977.

In attacking the Maronites and the Sunnis, Jumblatt essentially sent a message that the Sunni-Maronite-Druze alliance that made the Independence Intifada against Syria possible in 2005 is no longer what it used to be. Was this an opening offering demanded by Syria of Jumblatt, given that the doors of Damascus are now open to everyone, as Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, put it some weeks ago? Who can say. However, when Mohammad Raad of Hizbullah declares that Jumblatt "has begun a genuine political reconsideration of his position," you know that something is amiss, and that it must involve the Syrians.

If Jumblatt's shift is defensible in terms of Druze survival, does that necessarily make it good policy? The political consequences of his statements will be grave, particularly in Baabda. In Zahleh, too, observers expect Elie Skaff to gain from Maronite retaliation against March 14. In the West Bekaa, the Sunnis have been angry with Jumblatt for some weeks now due to his alliance with Nabih Berri, and his latest comments may have repercussions on how they vote for Wael Abou Faour, even if he probably will be elected. In the Metn, the Kisirwan, and Jbeil, March 14 has just been made weaker, as Michel Aoun will be able to argue that those Maronites who allied with Jumblatt were all along despised by him.

However, more worryingly for Jumblatt, his statements have marginalized him within March 14. The Druze leader has always been a good triangulator - someone who gains from positioning himself between contending forces. He's lost that capacity now. Saad Hariri is emerging as the most forceful guardian of the March 14 political line; he has stuck to his Christian allies, despite the improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria; and in the end he will always be the primary interlocutor of the Shiites. It's difficult to see how Jumblatt, who could have played his game much differently, gains by finding himself lost in a no-man's land between Lebanon's different political forces. In fact, this exposes him much more to Syrian retaliation than ever before.

The thing is, Jumblatt's analysis of Christian, particularly Maronite, electoral mistakes is sound. The excessive representation of the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces in candidate lists, at the expense of non-party independents, will doubtless lose March 14 votes. The withdrawal last week of Nassib Lahoud from the race was highly symbolic for the majority, affirming that what remains of the ideals of the 2005 Independence Intifada has disintegrated into selfish partisanship. Though he was a presidential candidate of March 14, Lahoud bowed out because his allies, particularly the Phalange, neither consulted him on the list formation in the Metn nor were they likely to vote for him.

Jumblatt is rightly concerned that the mediocrity of the Maronite candidates might lose March 14 the elections. However, his statements only reinforce that likelihood. If the Druze leader is preparing to alter his approach with respect to Syria and Hizbullah, isn't it better for him and his partners to win the elections first and negotiate that change from a position of strength? The leaked video backfired, and now we may have to prepare for the grim fact, as King Abdullah of Jordan predicted this week, that the Hizbullah-led opposition will come out of the elections a winner.

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